Tuesday, December 21, 2004

A Writer’s Perspective

I write stories. That is my profession. From the earliest days of my life I have considered stories important. When told well, we believe them and live by them. Think of old stories, the stories of the Bible, for example. They are well and meaningfully told, and so many are instructed, moved, and try to live according to the truths discovered in them.

Because I've been telling stories all my life, I've become a pretty good judge of the stories other people tell. I've been listening for four years to the stories the President of the United States, and, sadly, they are not good stories. They are not good stories because they are not true.

One story he told was that the country of Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and was intending shortly to use them on us. That was a scary story, but it was not true. Another story was that the Iraqi dictator, Saddam Hussein, was in partnership with the terrorists of A1-Qaeda. That turned out to be untrue. But off we went to war on the basis of these stories. And there soon followed the story that the invasion of Iraq was a "mission accomplished," and that, tragically, is not true. It is so untrue that nobody is allowed to photograph the return of our fallen servicemen and women as, to this day, they are brought back to the United States in their flag-draped coffins. The President doesn't want us to know how untrue that story is. But of course we know.

When I tell a bad story there is no great harm done except, perhaps, to myself if a publisher won't publish it. But when the President tells a bad story, it is published all over the world. And it has immense consequences. For one thing, it creates other bad storytellers in the President's style, from Cabinet members who ignore the Geneva Conventions and sanction the unlawful interrogation of prisoners, down through the ranks to the American soldiers who, in the very same prison where Saddam Hussein tortured prisoners, have humiliated detainees, stuffed their heads in toilets to make them renounce their religion, and posed them naked with dog collars around their necks. And before you know it we are hearing from this President stories that are not true American stories, stories that are no longer our stories, stories that we turn away from because they are so un-American.

Pumping out the presidential stories is a whole stable of people writing in his name, a stable of empire-dreaming ideologists and oil- men for whom the thirteenth-century tribal idea of preemptive war seems the way of the twenty-first-century. Never mind that it has actually made us hated all over the world and expanded A1 Qaeda's recruitment base, or that it has encouraged other countries similarly to abandon their diplomatic restraint.

Our government has imprisoned suspects without bringing charges against them or arranging for their trials. It is now legally empowered to conduct secret searches and surveillance of homes and offices of people who for any reason come under its suspicion. It may subpoena the public library or your university library and demand to see what books you've been reading. And so with all the consequences of this President's bad stories, we have to ask ourselves: What is happening to us? What are we becoming? These are crucial questions because the total of this President's bad stories is beginning to sound like a deconstruction of the American story.

I've been concerned to pass my courses and get my degree, but now I have to understand that my private concerns, my well-being, even my life's course, will be profoundly affected by the condition of the country I live in. And right now it is not a healthy condition. We are a deeply divided nation in danger of undergoing a profound change for the worse. Am I prepared to say that we are any less than what Abraham Lincoln called us; the last best hope of mankind? For it is not just our politicians who are given to write the story we live by. The genius of our democracy is that finally everyone writes its story. You will hear that to question authority is to aid terrorism. You will hear that to dissent is to signal weakness in the national resolve. Do not believe these stories. They are beneath contempt. I have been taught in my years here how to distinguish truth from fiction. I have the means now to recognize the truth and to write it. My generation is, as of this day, entrusted with writing the American story. And do not delude ourselves, if we don't write it, someone else will write it for us.

Thursday, September 30, 2004

The Real Meaning of Liberal

I'm struck by the force of language used to describe pundits, politicians, and political ideologies. While sifting through letters to the editor I came by a line saying of the Bush Administration, "this grinning pestilence of a government". What passion I saw in this letter, what feeling this woman had calling President Bush “a fallacious puppet” and “a mongrel puppy just learning how to use his teeth”. Funny that she claimed she was not interested in politicians, but was in fact a cynic in relation to politicians.

While working as an intern for the Albany Herald I took on duties of sifting through the mail sent in for consideration to the editor. This entailed me having to read constantly for eight hours a day. The letters addressed every topic on the list of the country's political ideologies. There’s the “tragic” and “ludicrous” folly of a “military empire” in Iraq, the suddenly "swollen tumor" of a federal debt likely to “beggar the next generation” of citizens, "the criminal assault" on our civil liberties conducted by an attorney general who believes that "in America, there is no king but Jesus,"

I can’t help but laugh out loud at times when sifting through the slush pile. Not because I love to make fun of President Bush, it's that people have time to write a letter about something they vehemently hate. While some of the letters are disturbing (or even criminal) I take encouragement from the mail because the letters prove a point opposite to the one their authors intend. The humor and energy of the letters prove a lie of their professions of cynicism, and I'm left with the thought that maybe it's possible to advance a concern for the country's general welfare.

The letters sometimes mentioned the "conservative bias" embedded in the walls at Fox News, but more often the "liberal bias" in the pages at the Albany Herald. Sometimes the correspondents referred to the "blithering stupidity" of a particular columnist or television or radio talk-show host; nearly always they deplored the absence of "vigorous dissent" on the part of a "free and fair press" presumably designated by the First Amendment to defend the country against the “ambition of dangerous fools”.

Nobody wants lies to pass for truth. If in one season President Bill Clinton can be promoted and sold as a “sexual pervert” and a “thieving juvenile delinquent”, in another season he can be promoted and sold as a “benign elder statesman”, “experienced and wise”, “the voice of reason” and “the soul of honor and justice”, what are we to make of politics in general?

The meanings of the words "liberal" and "conservative" have been so mercilessly abused over the last decade that they offer more information about the person who employs them than they do about the person on whose head they fall.

To say that she is liberal or he is conservative is to say nothing intelligible about his or her politics, conduct, occupation, place of residence, or record of prior arrests. It is conceivable, even likely, that the woman identified as a liberal thinks nothing of tapping her daughter's telephone and enjoys an after-tax income of $2 million a year supplied by eight-year- old seamstresses earning $3 a day in a Chinese basement. On the other hand, it is equally conceivable that the man labeled as a conservative devotes his life to the protection of hummingbirds, recycles his garbage, and is a mild mannered African-American.

Negative caricatures abound, however, the words retain a theatrical value, by listening to Rush Limbaugh's radio broadcasts and by reading the editorials in The Nation. I've learned to recognize, sometimes on the evidence of no more than two sentences, the anti-liberal and the anti-conservative rhetoric. The anti-liberal prides himself on the clarity of his intellect. When talking about the faculty of intelligence (his own or that of his friends), he invariably describes it as "ruthless" or "unrelenting." Believing that he has seen through the veils of sentimental illusion, he talks incessantly about "reality" and what things cost, about the way in which deluded technocrats persist in confusing the Kingdom of Heaven with the Department of fill in the blank (Health, Education, State, Transportation, Welfare, etc.), missing is the ire aimed at the Defense Department. Sooner or later he gets around to saying that there isn't enough money in the world to give to the poor, and he can be counted upon to draw the comparison between Sadam Hussein and John Kerry.

The anti-conservative prides himself on the quality of his emotions. Acquainted with a Canadian poet who supplies him with bootleg metaphor, he believes that he has looked into the bottomless wells of human experience. He talks incessantly about "the moral parameters" and what things mean, about Calvinism made abominable and Republicans as landlords and racists. Sooner or later he gets around to saying that there isn't enough love in the world, and he can be counted upon to draw the comparison between George W. Bush and Adolph Hitler.

Given the stupidities of the American government and the inequities of the American people, both the anti-liberal and the anti- conservative can find proofs of their worst suspicions in every morning's newspaper. The resulting argument (always unbelievably loud) embellished with scowling frowns and malicious glances, sells books, brings lecture fees, and drums up an audience for the Sunday-morning talk shows.

The media extravagantly cross-promotes the synthetic debate, but actually sedate their audiences with the drug of boredom and so encourage a general retreat into the corrupting consolation of cynicism.

Finding themselves suffocated by a climate of opinion in which dissent was disloyalty and disloyalty a crime, a good many independent-minded and once outspoken citizens acquired the habit of looking at the national political scene from the point of view of spectators at a house fire or a train wreck. As compensation for their loss of a public voice, they retreated to a library or a lawn party to comfort themselves with private and literary expressions of anger and disgust. Which leaves me reading their hate for eight hours a day.

When are we going to wake up and start thinking about the reality of our political ideologies? I see the passion in the people who write to the Herald, so I know people care about politics. Only thing is their message seems twisted and flawed. What is it about the political seen that breeds such anti-liberals and anti-conservatives? Where are the clear minded moderates? It leads nowhere except to sucking lemons, a stinging sour taste of hate that has been dividing people in this country far too long. It is the cynical politician's favorite flavor. Yes, say the gentlemen in power, exactly right, the world is a truly terrible place, overflowing with venal bankers and bearded terrorists, and you, my dear, you are so sensitive and smart that it would be a crime to squander your talent in the sewer of politics. We would do the same if only we had the chance, but we're not as insightful as you, not as well-read or profound, and so we must wade in this cesspool for you.

The friends and servants of the status quo paint frightful portraits of the future in order to preserve their hold on power. Do nothing, they say, because you might get hurt, if not by a weapon of mass destruction, or a shoe bomb, then by a polluted river or poisonous air. Do nothing, because we know what's best for you, and we will save you. Democratic self-government, allying itself the proposition that nobody knows enough, that nothing is final, that the future is no further away than the next sentence.